Jorge Mario Bergoglio attends his first private Mass as Pope Francis in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore on March 14, 2013 in Rome, Italy.
Credit: L'Osservatore Romano

Pope Francis stands as a rare figure on the global stage, speaking truth to the power of a globally interconnected financial system and governments of the developed world as he puts continuing stress on social responsibility to the poor.

In a document released yesterday, which the Vatican said the pope wrote in August, Francis calls the global economic system “unjust at its root” for promoting a “survival of the fittest” mentality.

He remarks on “widespread corruption” and “self-serving tax-evasion” – coincidentally, less than a week after JPMorgan Chase agreed to pay a $13 billion fine, negotiated with the Justice Department, for selling faulty mortgages in the 2008 economic meltdown. The bank’s CFO, Marianne Lake, said in a conference call with reporters that “$7 billion of compensatory [damages] payments will be deductible for tax purposes.”

The Vatican document made no reference to any banks by name; yet the pope’s rhetoric underscores the timeliness of an economic critique amid so many financial scandals across the globe.

On the broader scope of changes in the international financing system, the pope said starkly: “The excluded are not the ‘exploited’ but the outcast, the ‘leftovers.’”

The released papal document “Evangelii Gaudium” or “The Joy of the Gospel” is an Apostolic Exhortation, a step below a papal encyclical, according to the Vatican Press Office. That distinction seems negligible to a pope enjoying great popularity in Europe, where youth unemployment in Spain and Greece is at Depression-era levels. Banks that drove the real estate bubble have largely recovered; but to college-educated young people who cannot find jobs, Francis’s continuing remarks have resonance, particularly since Holy Thursday when he washed the feet of young inmates during a service at a prison in Rome.

The pope is giving new currency to a phrase that became popular after a 1979 meeting of Latin American bishops in Medellin, Columbia: “the preferential option for the poor” — words that faded into near-obscurity in the last years of John Paul II and the subsequent papacy of Benedict XVI, which put greater emphasis on obedience to doctrine.

“For the Church, the option for the poor is primarily a theological category,” Francis states in the new document. “This is why I want a Church that is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us.”

“As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved,” he continued, “no solution will be found for this world’s problems.”

The tone of the pope’s work is almost conversational, in directing his comments to bishops and priests, and the larger church of people in the pews. Yet his goal seems to be a paradigm shift in terms of mission: “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”

Francis further mentions “the homeless, the addicted, refugees, indigenous peoples, the elderly who are increasingly isolated and abandoned.”

He addresses sexual abuse in the context of human trafficking as a form of slavery: “This infamous network of crime is now well established in our cities, and many people have blood on their hands as a result of their comfortable and silent complicity.”

A certain risk seems inevitable with language of this kind, given the continuing crisis of clergy sex abuse that damaged the bishops’ moral authority in recent years, and which Francis inherited from Pope Benedict.

Francis’s reference to a church “clinging to its own security” came on the same day a clergy abuse survivors’ group in Milwaukee, Wis. released a letter drafted by Father James Connell, a canon lawyer and former diocesan official, to the Congregation for Clergy in Rome, asking the Vatican to nullify a controversial $57 million transaction by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, as archbishop of Milwaukee six years ago, burying the money in a cemetery trust to avoid paying settlements to clergy abuse victims.

In 2007, Dolan shifted the $57 million from general funds into a special cemetery trust as lawsuits by abuse victims mounted. Dolan soon went to New York to become archbishop and subsequently a cardinal. In Milwaukee, the diocese faces 550 victim cases. The diocese filed for federal bankruptcy relief three years ago in an effort to bargain down the settlements; the bankruptcy turned into grinding litigation in which church lawyers challenged the validity of the victims’ claims.

A group of sympathetic clergy rallied to the cause of the victims. The letter that Father Connell wrote as part of the Survivors and Clergy Leadership Alliance, asks theVatican to rescind the $57 million transfer, approved by Cardinal Claudio Hummes, who was prefect of Congregation for Clergy at the time.
The Vatican policy on clergy abuse, such as it is, encourages bishops to report crimes to law enforcement and work within a given country’s laws. But with bishops bound by canon law to seek approval for shifts of funds over $5 million from Congregation for Clergy, the Vatican is in a position of de facto micromanaging certain decisions that bear on large settlement issues.
A federal appeals judge in Milwaukee, who has relatives buried in the diocesan cemeteries, uphold the church’s position. His ruling is now under appeal.

But issues like the $57 million in Milwaukee stand in high relief from Francis’s rhetoric of moral responsibility to victims of abuse.

The pope has not been drawn into the clergy abuse issue in media coverage.

Francis’s long document expresses solidarity with “women who endure situations of exclusion, mistreatment and violence” but restates the position of John Paul II that only men can be priests.

“Until women are ordained as priests by the institutional church, they will not be partners and equals in the Catholic Church,” the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests said in response, in a press release.

Focusing on economic threats to the stability of the family, Francis said that “the individualism of our postmodern and globalized era favors a lifestyle which … distorts family bonds.” 

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